Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #23 – On Being Who You Are: “But I’m supposed to be . . .”

#23 – On Being Who You Are: “But I’m supposed to be . . .”

In 1952 the Brooklyn Dodgers called up a 28-year old African-American pitcher named Joe Black from their minor league system. Black roomed with Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s “color barrier” five years earlier when he joined the Dodgers. But where Robinson, a gifted athlete, was also something of a firebrand, Black was all about pitching. He had a powerful fastball and a tantalizing slow curve, both of which he threw with the same consistent motion, keeping opposing batters guessing. Moreover, Black had no qualms about throwing high and inside to keep hitters from crowding the plate.

Dodger manager Chuck Dressen assigned Black to the bullpen, where he quickly became dominant. The powerful reliever won 15 games and saved another 15, while maintaining a 2.14 ERA over 142 innings as the Dodgers won the National League title. Facing the New York Yankees in the World Series and finding himself short of starting pitchers, Dressen brought Black out of the bullpen to start the first game. With a powerful performance, Black bested Yankee ace Allie Reynolds, 4 to 2. While he later started and lost in games four and seven, Joe Black nevertheless earned the distinction of being the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game, and he was later named National League Rookie of the Year for 1952.

During the off season after losing the series, Chuck Dressen decided that he wanted Black to add a number of pitches to his repertoire, that his two pitches were not enough. As it happened, Black had been born with a deformity in his right hand, making it difficult for him to throw anything but his fastball and slow curve. Nevertheless, he dutifully set to work adding the pitches his manager wanted, and his effectiveness immediately began to decline. After two more seasons, Black was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, then to the Washington Senators, and by 1958, he was teaching Health and Physical Education at Hubbard Junior High School in Plainfield, New Jersey. During his rather brief major league career he had compiled a record of 30 wins and 12 losses, half of those wins coming in his first year with the Dodgers. Baseball historians still speculate as to what Joe Black might have accomplished if he could simply have used what he did have instead of being pressured for more — if he could just have been himself.

I often find myself speculating in much the same way about many of the people who come to my office for therapy. They arrive with complaints about pressure, frustration, and a sense of failure. Many have already seen a physician and been prescribed medicine, which they believed would make them feel better. Yet, even with the medicine, the stresses of their everyday lives persist, taking the inevitable mental and physical toll and leaving these people with an ongoing sense of misery. For most of them, the stresses they endure daily are rooted in the instilled belief that they are not good enough as they are and that they must somehow “be more” and “do better” in order to avoid one of life’s greatest perceived penalties — disapproval.

Our need for approval starts to be fostered almost as soon as we exit the womb. Knowing nothing of who or where we are or how to go about getting our needs met, we can only rely on those who take care of us — our parents and others. Naked and helpless, we depend on them for our survival. Soon we come to understand that these “big people” represent authority; they tell us who we are and how we are doing and how we are supposed to be doing. Very quickly we learn the importance of maintaining the approval of the big people in order to avoid the painful experience of shame.

In this way avoidance becomes a major part of how we learn to cope with the world. Then, as we grow and mature, the big people come to include teachers, coaches, employers, law officers, public officials, and even “media” personalities. Eventually, we reach the point where trying to satisfy the big people becomes overwhelming since there are so many of them, and since their expectations of us keep increasing. Now, no matter what we do, we cannot avoid disappointing and being disapproved of by someone. Since the body’s stress reaction is triggered when we face demands that we do not believe we are able to meet, the stress now becomes ongoing. And, as if dealing with all this stress were not enough, we also must face the irony that in always trying to satisfy the big people, we rarely if ever manage to satisfy ourselves.

Not infrequently, people confess to me that their lives are not what they had expected them to be; many even admit they are living lives that they never really wanted. To make matters worse, the large majority of these people, having spent so much time trying to do what they were supposed to do, never got to figure out exactly what they wanted to do. Thus, feeling trapped where they are, many are also terrified by the idea of being set “free” with no direction in which to go. Working with these people starts with helping them understand that they have both the right and the ability to take charge of their own lives — to find and explore their own interests, set their own priorities, and look for approval not from others but from themselves. From here, they begin a process of discovery in which they start to find previously unrecognized aspects of themselves, valuable characteristics that help define them as individuals. Through this process, they start to establish a healthier and more complete sense of who they are. Gradually they come to see that they can live in the world and simply be themselves, doing their best at what they do and not feeling like a failure if someone does not approve.

For each of us, it takes courage to start being yourself when you have spent years, perhaps even decades, trying to be someone else. After all, we have long been trying to be and do what we were told we were supposed to be and do. Now, if we hesitate and perhaps choose to do something else, people may disapprove, some vehemently. To be sure, we all find it necessary sometimes to accommodate the big people in order to have our own needs met. With a healthy sense of self, however, it is possible for us to perform a service for someone without compromising our own sense of who we are.

In 1951, a year before Joe Black joined the Dodgers, another young African-American began playing for the New York Giants. Friendly and outgoing, this talented young centerfielder became known as “The Say Hey Kid” and ultimately established himself as one of baseball’s all-time greats. When asked how he could keep performing without being changed by the pressures of the game, Willie Mays responded, “Just be yourself and you’ll never have a problem.” Too bad Joe Black never got that message.

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  1. Margaret Buice
    October 2, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    Don,
    Everyone breathing needs to truly take this to heart! As always, thank you for your ability to so beautifully express your wisdom!!

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